Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Riches to rags: the long life of clothing

Shoppers at a secondhand clothing market in Harare, Zimbabwe. Image: The Zimbabwean

We like to think that the secondhand clothing market is all about exercising creativity, or rescuing the past. But what happens to the clothes that don't meet the vintage industry's criteria of individual value?

Once bought, clothing progresses through a chain of degradation. It can be resold several more times, especially as bulk exports to developing countries. Many of the old clothes we donate to charity end up being sold in secondhand markets in Africa. As much as 80 per cent of donations don't even make it into op-shops.

Instead, charity organisations on-sell them to textile recycling factories, which sort and repackage them into bales to be sold abroad in bulk. As of 2004, the United States both exported the largest volume of second-hand clothes and derived the most money from the export, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

Stacked on pallets, shrink-wrapped in plastic, the bales look unnervingly like lozenges of chewing gum – poised to deliver refreshment. Those graded as 'Premium' are destined for Asia, Central America and Europe; in 2004, Europe accounted for about a quarter of all second-hand clothes imports.

However, sub-Saharan African is the most popular destination for second-hand clothing. Clothes designated 'Africa A' go to wealthier countries and 'Africa B' to the poorest ones. In Ghana and Togo, they're jocularly known as 'dead white man's clothing', while Tanzanians call them 'dyed in America' and in Somalia it's 'huudhaydh', the phonetic spelling of "Who died?"

In Rwanda, used clothing goes by the local word for 'choose'. And in Zambia, the market stalls where locals come to rummage through piles of Western cast-offs are called 'bend-down boutiques'. Everyone shops for clothes this way, from government ministers to the poorest subsistence fishermen.

In debt-crippled Zambia, the domestic clothing industry was entirely snuffed out during the 1990s by the free trade that was conditional on loans from foreign donor countries. Endless container-loads of foreign second-hand clothing fatally flooded the local textile market. Even used, these garments were often better made than locally made equivalents; manufacturers simply couldn't produce the same quality at the same volume and low cost.

Now, everyone in Zambia wears second-hand clothes. Wholesalers import them duty free, and then onsell to an ecosystem of progressively smaller-scale dealers who fan out into their own districts. Many of them are teenagers who've been locked out of an unaffordable education system, or former teachers, public servants and nurses who've turned to entrepreneurship after losing their jobs.

A secondhand clothes dealer transports his merchandise. Image: Africa Review

When American essayist David Rakoff travelled to a Playboy TV shoot at Cayo Espanto, a hyper-luxurious private resort island off the coast of Belize, he was troubled not just by the contrast between the decadent pampering he received there and the poverty of neighbouring town San Pedro, but also by his knowing, guilty surrender to indulgence.

As Rakoff boards his departing plane, he notices that the baggage handler is wearing "a tight, faded yellow T-shirt with Daffy Duck on it, bearing the slogan, 'I was Loony as a Toon at Samantha's Bat Mitzvah'":
It would be nice to think that this T-shirt was his from the start, that he was at Samantha's bat mitzvah, sharing in her family's joy as she came into Jewish womanhood, and came away with this souvenir of his time there. But … I kind of doubt it.
For Rakoff, the tightness, the fadedness, and most of all the cross-cultural incongruity of the T-shirt mark it not as a prized heirloom, nor even an ironic gesture, but as sartorial imperialism.

If you think that's abject, I haven't even begun to talk about rags. In the past, old clothes were once collected by rag-and-bone men and sold to dealers, the original rag-traders. Whatever they couldn't sell as a finished garment was shredded and put to other uses.

Linen and cotton rags are used to make paper – the fancy sort that's coveted for business cards and wedding invitations. Other clothes go to industrial workplaces for cleaning machinery and wiping workers' hands; they're cheaper and more absorbent than paper towels. Jeans end up soaking up oil spills on factory floors; T-shirts are used in polishing and car detailing.

Fibre from rags can fill car doors to weight them for that satisfying clunk, be used in home insulation, soundproofing tiles, furniture stuffing and upholstery, carpet underlay and movers' blankets, and even mixed into asphalt. Some clothing is broken down into its original fibres, which are re-woven, or its synthetic components, which are melted down and reconstituted.

A worker sorts rags by fabric and colour and removes buttons at Eastern Outsource, a sheltered workshop in Mt Evelyn, Victoria.

There's something overwhelming about this ultimate disintegration, this annihilation of everything clothing represents – its design, its aesthetic, its function and its cultural significance. You see, every garment begins its life meaning something. It's designed, made and bought for a specific purpose, coveted, cherished, and worn with feelings of pride and shame. It snowballs in significance as it moves through history, becoming totemic of the time and place it was made.

As New York Times reporter George Packer observes, the pitilessly industrial logic of clothes recycling plants strips this significance away. "Whatever charming idiosyncrasy a pair of trousers might have once possessed is annihilated in the mass and crush. Not only does the clothing cease to be personal, it ceases to be clothing."

Yet once he travels to Africa, Packer is in awe of how good these same clothes look once they're displayed on a Kampala market stall. They "undergo a transformation like inanimate objects coming to life in a fairy tale. Human effort and human desire work the necessary magic."

It's kind of patronising to clothing consumers in the developing world to suggest they dress naively or thoughtlessly. Zambian 'bend-down boutiques' are every bit as thoughtfully arranged as an inner-city Australian vintage salon, with their latest and best acquisitions prominently displayed on hangers and racks to attract customers, while older, discounted items languish in piles on the ground. Younger boutique vendors, especially, curate their stock with a shrewd eye for visual flair and saleability.

In Zambia, young men covet business suits for their connotations of wealth and upward mobility, and American sports jerseys for their associations with US hip-hop stars. Really, how different is that to the way my friends and I used to buy second-hand Levi's 501 jeans when we were 15 from Dangerfield, American Rag and army disposal stores? They often had holes and worn patches, but that only added to their glamour in our eyes. What we loved about them was their patina of Americanness – the feeling that by wearing them, we could magically travel somewhere more exotic than Melbourne.

The vintage industry celebrates the clothing of the past by fetishising particular, wonderful, individual garments, which it goes on to invest with new retail value because they're now unique. But the fate of rags should warn us of the destructive power of not-wanting. When a garment is no longer desirable, it loses its value and purpose entirely.

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